Waiting, with great anticipation, for next year

BY foxsports • June 18, 2015

by Richard Pietro

Has there ever been a more apropos moment in the history of Cleveland sports for fans to say, “Oh yeah? Well just wait ‘til next year”? And to say it with justifiable optimism? The Cavaliers are already the favorites in Las Vegas to win the title next season, and with good reason.

When the 2015-16 season begins in October, Kyrie Irving will be only 23 years old. Tristan Thompson will be 24. Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova will be 25, Kevin Love will be 27, and Timofey Mozgov will be 28. J.R. Smith and LeBron James will be 30. Anderson Varejao will be 33. If they all begin the season healthy and active, it will be their first full season together, but they will have had the invaluable benefit of playing together for the first six months of 2015. This was a team that was just beginning to reach its peak when Kevin Love ran off the court holding his left shoulder.

And need it be added that the Cavaliers will still have the best player in the world on their roster next October? This Cavaliers team is (and will be) an extremely interesting, well-balanced, and explosive one.

Eventually, and perhaps out of emotional necessity, Cavaliers fans will recognize that 2014-15 was not yet their time. The Cavs’ past season began on October 30, a game the Cavs lost 95-90 to the New York Knicks. In that game, both J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert scored 12 points — for the Knicks. It wasn’t until January 5, more than two months into the season, that the Cavs traded for Smith and Shumpert and then, two days later, when they traded for Timofey Mozgov, that they could begin the process of establishing their identity, of becoming a team.

Yes, there was that outside chance that the team could have been knitted together on a fast break sprint, and there were many exquisite moments when the team was playing so well together that it looked like nobody could beat them. But, of course, that was when Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy and playing regularly with their new teammates.

On Monday evening while in Chicago, in part to attend the Indians-Cubs game that was rained out, I sat down with family to watch the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. It was an intense, hard-fought contest which Chicago would win for their third championship in six years. What really struck me, however, was how well the game was controlled by the referee and linesmen. Not once did we hear the commentators lament how the game was getting away from the on-ice officials. Not once did we hear, “That’s just a terrible call.” Nor did we hear the commentators regularly and routinely acknowledging fouls that should have been called, and weren’t, along with infractions that were called and shouldn’t have been. Mind you, this was hockey, the sport that gave birth to the joke, “We went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out”!

The NBA, however, has given birth to a new joke. What sport has one set of rules for the regular season and a different set for its playoff games? Allow me to be blunt here: This notion that the NBA should allow football kind of hits during the playoffs because, well, because it’s the playoffs, is just stupid. Clearly there is a division of opinion on this topic, even among the on-air announcers, but increasingly, the NBA is seen as a joke for this very reason.

Be assured: This is not to suggest that the Cavaliers were robbed by the officiating in the Finals with Golden State. The Warriors outplayed the Cavs, that much is clear. The Cavaliers were robbed, however, of the services of Kevin Love. By its tacit, perhaps explicit, approval of pugilistic tactics during the playoffs, the NBA is creating an environment where NBA basketball looks less and less like basketball and where serious injuries become far more likely. Even casual fans know better than to buy the argument that the injury to Kevin Love in Boston was just one of those unfortunate accidents that happens sometimes in sports. That injury, one of the most egregious maulings I have witnessed in sports, was the product of the ugly environment which the NBA itself creates and promotes.

There’s another element to the playoff rules mentality of the NBA which has a direct bearing on the game of LeBron James. It’s been suggested by some, Brian Windhorst included, that the “more physical” game of the playoffs favored the Cavaliers against the Warriors. That’s hard to buy. Everyone knows that when LeBron James drives to the basket, it’s almost impossible to stop him with a single defender, so typically, and especially during the regular season, opposing teams either foul him or double/triple-team him in the paint to force an outlet pass. During the playoffs, however, with refs using NFL-style unnecessary roughness criteria (and ignoring even those on occasion) James got fouled repeatedly on his drives to the basket without getting the call. So what happens to James’ attack-the-rim-style of play if opposing defenders can mug him in the paint with impunity, if they can hack away at his arms, head, neck and shoulders without sending him to the foul line?

But more to the point, what on earth makes anyone think that a foul in January shouldn’t be a foul in June?

The most significant offseason move the NBA could make is to address the issue of its own credibility. Do they want to attract an increasing number of fans of basketball? Or are they looking for more fans amongst advocates of boxing and mixed martial arts?

The most significant offseason move the Cleveland Cavaliers could make is to simply resolve to pick up in October where they left off in June … and to stay healthy.

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